There is an advert I like from the glory days of the department store: “I was lonely,” a woman says, “so I went to Selfridges … one of the biggest and brightest places I could think of.” Selfridge’s cut 450 jobs in 2020; Harrods axed 700. Debenhams went into administration in April 2019 and House of Fraser has been taken over by Mike Ashley. More than 17,500 shops disappeared from British high streets last year, but the closure of 16 John Lewis stores feels particularly significant. When lockdown lifts, half of the flagship John Lewis store on London’s Oxford Street may be converted into office space.
The high street has been in decline since the growth of out-of-town shopping centres in the 80s but despite this, John Lewis had maintained a reputation for solidity. Founded in 1864, the company is the UK’s largest employee-owned business; each worker has part-ownership of the company and a share of its annual profits. Yet Covid-19 restrictions have had a devastating effect on high-street businesses, particularly those in city centres. This is the first year in the company’s history that it has reported an annual loss, and the first time since 1953 that John Lewis won’t pay staff a bonus.
Before the pandemic, I liked going on daytrips to the big John Lewis store on Oxford Street to buy pants (full briefs, five-pack, £12). The lingerie department has not materially altered since I bought my first pairs, and the way the underwear is colour-coded is soothingly familiar. Like the great department stores of the 1900s – Simpsons of Piccadilly, and Marshall & Snelgrove – John Lewis seemed still to provide the shopper with a consolidated, all-encompassing world of items.
In department stores, life is broken down into helpful sections (baby, school, home). By contrast, online shopping – which I do compulsively – makes your options frighteningly limitless. Where Amazon Marketplace lists thousands of different options for a set of bed sheets, John Lewis offers just 64. The appeal of department stores is built on the illusion that everything you could ever need is confined within one, reassuringly physical space. My aunt tells me she likes the Brent Cross branch of John Lewis because it makes her feel “contained”. She says: “I could live in that shop. When I walk through those doors I feel like: here I am, and everything is going to be OK. I can get my cheese grater, and it will be a good cheese grater.”
For my friend Helen’s mother, who regards the store as something of a national institution, part of its lure is its middle-class credentials. “My mum was a working-class girl who became first-generation middle class, so John Lewis was aspirational. But not too aspirational – that would be Harrods.” You go to Harrods or Selfridges to feel bamboozled by desire and perhaps a little unworthy, but you go to John Lewis to feel comfortable. “My mother loved [it] because she felt comfortable enough to open up all the greeting cards on the stationery floor. Then she would go to the tea room to have a scone.”
When they were first created, department stores were some of the only public spaces that were laid out for the pleasure and convenience of women. They emerged in the late 18th century, with the 1796 opening of Harding, Howell & Co’s Grand Fashionable Magazine, in Pall Mall, and later, many department stores installed women’s lavatories (Selfridges was the first shop to install a loo, in 1909), allowing women to be outside the home all day, alone, without stirring moral indignation. Department stores functioned like social clubs for women, with no admission requirements: any shopper could enter, you could buy something or choose to buy nothing. Selfridges even also had a “girls-only gun club” and a mini-golf course.
Rachel Bowlby, professor of comparative literature at UCL and author of Carried Away: The Invention of Modern Shopping, tells me the department store is a kind of dream space: “The architecture of these shops was palatial, and any woman could walk in off the street and experience luxury that was previously only associated with the aristocracy. It’s about another space in every sense of the word. Another mental space, too, perhaps. You could play the queen.”
If the department store is a place of dreams, the aspiration John Lewis sells is a slightly bland, middle-class British one. My aunt talks about the store the way she would a person: “Warm, not trashy but not luxurious, fair-minded, never fussy. If I’m not that person now I feel like I am her in John Lewis.” The shop represents a certain type of security and comfort that was, for many people, always illusory. And just as it has become more difficult to attain the markers of a middle-class lifestyle – a steady job, a house, a set of coordinated towels – the store that was one of the signifiers of such stability is now in a far less secure position.
So is the rest of the high street. During the pandemic an average of 48 shops, restaurants and hospitality venues closed every day across England, Wales and Scotland. After lockdown restrictions lift, our city centres will feel quieter and more vacant, and many outlets that were closed temporarily may never reopen. Shoppers, unable to make the trip into town or to visit the stores on their local high street, have instead turned to the internet.
Now when I get lonely, rather than seeking comfort in department stores, I go online and rack up PayPal credit debt. I buy small, ugly things at odd hours: foot masks, exfoliating gloves, a collection of tiny plastic cats. When we lose the neat, consolingly physical worlds of the department store we lose the comfort of other people. Real people buying pants right next to us, but also imagined people; people we’ve lost. I have tried to buy John Lewis pants online but it just doesn’t feel the same.